LA County says Manhattan Beach is violating outdoor dining ban
by Mark McDermott
The City of Manhattan Beach’s attempt to help local restaurants by repurposing outdoor dining decks into city-controlled, public seating has come under direct fire from Los Angeles County Health Officer Muntu Davis.
Davis sent a letter to City Manager Bruce Moe that said the city’s repurposing of the dining decks “violates both the letter and the spirit” of the Safer At Home public health order issued by the County on December 9. Davis said the ban on outdoor dining is an essential part of the effort to limit gatherings.
“The current restriction on outdoor dining is needed to further the overall goal of temporarily suspending gatherings of people from different households due to the increasingly widespread community transmission of the COVID-19 infection across our County,” Davis wrote. “All persons who leave their house to obtain essential services must do so while both practicing physical distancing and wearing a face covering or mask whenever they are or can be in contact with or walking near or past others who are non-household members, whether indoors or outdoors. By placing tables and chairs adjacent to restaurants, the City of Manhattan Beach is both violating and defeating the purpose of the County’s Order and decidedly not safeguarding public health.”
The City Council, via its deputized COVID-19 Long Term Business Solutions ad hoc subcommittee, which included Councilpersons Steve Napolitano and Nancy Hersman, on December 2 took the unusual action of declaring the public dining areas of all restaurants within Manhattan Beach public seating.
“Our business community is struggling to survive the County’s latest restrictions and the City has a win-win solution to help, while safeguarding public health,” Mayor Suzanne Hadley said in a statement at the time. “Additional public seating areas will strike this balance and repurpose public areas that temporarily can’t be used for outdoor dining because of the County’s restrictions.”
Restaurants officially ceded control of their outdoor deck furniture, which they purchased after the city allowed an expansion of outdoor dining early in the pandemic. On December 6, inspectors from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health paid visits to several Manhattan restaurants and asked operators why their outdoor dining decks were still in use.
Mike Simms, co-owner of Simmzy’s and a handful of other downtown eateries, said he told the inspectors, ‘Well, they’re not our dining decks anymore. The city took them back when outdoor dining was banned…So they’re now public spaces, just as if they were a public park. And from the city’s stance, the order doesn’t shut down public parks, so anybody’s allowed to sit there.’”
Davis, in his letter to the City, remarked on those inspections.
“Restaurant owners stated that signage showed that this seating was owned, controlled and provided by the City of Manhattan Beach,” Davis wrote. “Disconcertingly, the chairs and tables outside the restaurants matched the restaurant’s stock tables and chairs and are not property of the City. As the Los Angeles County Health Officer, I am asking the City of Manhattan Beach to refrain from maintaining a workaround for the temporary suspension of outdoor dining.”
The Council has taken other unusual actions in order to try to help small businesses survive restrictions, including an emergency loan program enacted on December 15. At that meeting, Napolitano said that the botched federal response has forced the City into taking actions it otherwise never would have considered.
“The federal government should have another stimulus package that’s been held up. If there is another one, great,” he said. “In the meantime we’ve got people suffering, and everyone says, ‘Oh, I wish such and such was still here, I wish so and so was still there.’ They’re going to say that after the fact, when we could have stepped up and done something.”
The Council, particularly former mayor Richard Montgomery, has also repeatedly asked the Los Angeles Department of Public Health to consider loosening restrictions on its business community, arguing that the COVID-19 case numbers locally are not as drastic as the countywide numbers. The Council has also considered contracting with another public health department, such as Long Beach’s or Pasadena’s, in hopes of obtaining fewer restrictions for its businesses.
Davis addressed the notion that Manhattan Beach’s COVID-19 case numbers merited less restrictions.
“Although the COVID-19 case rates in the City of Manhattan Beach are lower than overall County case rates, the COVID-19 case rate in Manhattan Beach tripled since mid-September,” he wrote. “To combat these alarming increases Public Health asks the City of Manhattan Beach to implore its residents to stay at home as much as possible during the length of the Regional Stay At Home Order, to regularly support its restaurants by ordering food for pickup or delivery, and when necessary to go out to do so safely while adhering to physical distancing and wearing a face covering.”
On Wednesday, Manhattan Beach registered 14 new COVID-19 cases, a continuation of the steep upward trend Davis referred to in his letter. After a few months of single-digit daily new cases, from November 30 to December 23, the city has tallied 199 new COVID-19 cases. Four deaths have been reported since the pandemic began.
City officials declined comment on the standoff with the LA County Department of Public Health.
Public Health orders are enforceable by law, but it’s unclear what action the LACDPH might take against the city. The agency has pulled health permits from individual restaurants that defy its orders, such as Eat at Joe’s in Redondo Beach, but has not faced a compliance issue in which the outdoor dining areas it has identified as in violation are allegedly city-owned.
The City, in its daily COVID-19 situation updates, has consistently urged residents to abide by public health orders.
“Public Health warns that without a change in how we celebrate the winter holidays, Los Angeles County will experience a surge on top of a surge on top of a surge,” the December 22 update said. “Hospitals are over capacity and the high-quality medical care we are all accustomed to in LA County is beginning to be compromised as our frontline healthcare workers are beyond stretched to the limit. Since the beginning of the surge in November, cases have increased by a staggering 862 percent. Stay home as much as possible and do not gather with anyone outside of your immediate household.”
The update also specifically urged residents to follow the Health Officer Order.
“Los Angeles County Health Department continues to update their Health Officer Order,” it said. “All elements of the Order and protocols must be followed.” ER